Some books are so good, you can read them twice, each time with profit. I don't often reread non-fiction, but in the case of Dean Strang's wonderful book about the trial of a group of Milwaukee anarchists in 1917, I did so. Wow, I say. If you care about the law, read this book.
A bomb erupted in the Milwaukee police station. It had been placed near a church. It was carelessly handled at the station. Nine police officers and a civilian were killed.
Who left the bomb at the church, and why?
Weeks after the bombing, 11 Italian immigrants, already in custody on charges relating to a riot involving the pastor of the targeted church, faced trial on charges unrelated to the bombing. The jury convicted all eleven after just nineteen minutes of deliberations. They were sentenced to long prison sentences.
More bombs and death threats followed. This time the targets were the prosecutors.
Emma Goldman was involved in supporting the defendants. Strang suspects she may have enlisted Clarence Darrow on appeal. Darrow, it turns out, did little appellate work in his long career.
Strang researched records of a bar disciplinary investigation involving the prosecutor in the case on unrelated charges of corruption. He unearths powerful evidence that Darrow, the prosecution and the judge arrived at a silent agreement to alter the court records on appeal so as to yield lenience for the defendants, this in exchange for the anarchists calling off further attempts on the lives of the prosecutors.
He tells the tale expertly in Worse The The Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror, Revised Edition, 2016.
I confess to being a sucker for everything written about Clarence Darrow. He's regarded as one of the greatest of American trial lawyers. I am a trial lawyer. I want to learn from a master. Yet researching Darrow suggests he's a dangerous role model. He stood trial himself twice -- with hung juries each time -- in California after being charged with bribing a juror in a case involving brothers accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building in the early 20th century. (He avoided a third trial by agreeing never to return to California to try another case.)
I suspect he did, in fact, bribe the jurors. He was spotted standing across the street from a juror who was handed an envelop with cash on a public street. Just a coincidence that he was there as his investigator made the payment? Maybe. I have my doubts.
Darrow once famously said "There is no such thing as justice, in or out of court. Justice is what comes out of a courtroom." That's dangerously close to saying the ends justify the means. A lawyer walking that slippery slope will slide into corruption. The rule of law admits of no exceptions -- you either follow the law, or become lawless.
Strang tells this tale with eyes and ears of the trial lawyer that he, in fact, is. If you know the name, you know him from watching Making of A Murderer. His defense of a young man tricked into confessing to a crime he did not commit is legendary.
Strang's suspicion about Darrow is a stunning accusation, but convincingly made. If you read the book, read the footnotes. Strang moonlights as a law professor, and his footnotes show the signs of a great educator at work. Strang, simply, as a master at his craft.
Plenty is said and written about our current political divisions, but, truth be told, we live in largely pacific times. A century ago, bombings and political violence were common in the United States. The divide between left and right featured anarchists and lawless private investigators clashing in bloody and deadly contests. Our politics today feature trash talk and hurt feelings.
The rule of law still matters, though. And Strang models it in action. His book on Darrow makes me doubt Darrow's legacy. But it holds out Strang as an admirable scholar/advocate. Every age needs heroes. Strang is becoming one of mine.